LEADERSHIP AND UNILATERALISM

Donald Sensing has a thoughtful piece explaining his “deep unease over the possibility that retired Gen. NATO Wesley Clark is a potential president of the United States.” The essay focuses on Clark’s strange assertion that, “You can’t win without a vision, and that means working with allies.” Donald does an excellent job rebutting this assertion, citing the leadership of Black Jack Pershing in World War One.

Strangely, I heard rhetoric much like Clark’s throughout the American Political Science Association convention this past week. The argument is that, if a cause is worth going to war over, then, surely, an American president ought to be able to persuade the good people of the United Nations to go along with us. While it sounds reasonable on its surface, this view misses the rather fundamental point that The World’s Sole Remaining SuperpowerTM sometimes has different interests than other states. Many times, the world demands that the U.S. show “leadership” in areas where we have virtually no interest, as in the many conflicts that erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Other times, we are rebuffed when we try to lead in places where others have conflicting interests, as in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, etc. Leadership in complicated scenarios becomes even more difficult because 1) states can free ride, getting the benefits of risks undertaken by the U.S. but without the costs; 2) states, especially former great powers now relegated to relative helplessness, have a natural inclination to counterbalance U.S. power.

In the case of the Iraq War, it is conceivable that the U.S. will be proven wrong in its policies. If we fail to undercover substantial evidence of WMD production, it will be quite difficult to convince many opponents that the war was the right thing to do. If, five years or so from now, Iraq is governed by an unstable regime–or still governed by the U.S. led coalition–it would surely be viewed as a failure by almost anyone. But it falls to the leadership of TWSRSPTM to make these difficult choices and bear the responsibility for success or failure. Historians still blame the U.S. for its lack of leadership in the periods leading up to the two World Wars, and our relative power was far less then than now.

FILED UNDER: World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matthew says:

    One of the major failures of Neoliberal scholarship is its inability to account for just how many realpolitik behaviors continue within longstanding, puportedly liberal regimes like the UN or the GATT/WTO. There’s a prevailing view that once a state joins one of these institutions, it begins to share values and interests — especially collective security interests — with all of the other states. Thus, it’s not surprising to hear that some of the folks at the APSA conference assume that the US is doing something wrong when it can only get 1/3 of the UN member states to go along with the Iraq war.

  2. JohnC says:

    Well, I think your argument is only theoretical. The documented behavior of the US in prosecuting the war with Iraq was extremely adversarial. No negotiation, straight “my way or the highway”. Echoed in the US media.

    It’s a bit like assuming the answer and acting to guarantee this behavior.

    Or is that simply “begging the question?”

    🙂

  3. Matthew says:

    John, the UN didn’t want to act in Kosovo, either, and I assume you wouldn’t characterize Clinton as taking a “my way or the highway” approach in that. Competing national interests don’t stop at the doors of the UN, and if anything, given the rule of great power unanimity, national interests of some countries get greatly magnified relative to their power (cough cough France cough).

  4. JohnC says:

    Uh, there was a NATO operation if I’m not mistaken. Comparing Iraq to Kosovo is, uh… CoughCough Stretching CoughCough the bounds of reality beyond the breaking point.

    And I don’t recall Clinton beating the crap out of the UN in the process of trying to get something together.

    And the French bit just kind of proves my point.

  5. One of the major failures of Neoliberal scholarship is its inability to account for just how many realpolitik behaviors continue within longstanding, puportedly liberal regimes like the UN or the GATT/WTO. There’s a prevailing view that once a state joins one of these institutions, it begins to share values and interests — especially collective security interests — with all of the other states

    Matthew – I dunno who the neoliberals are who you are reading, but that seems to be a rather odd summation of the neoliberal institutionalist perspective to me. By and large, they don’t talk about how institutions affect values and interests at all, treating the latter as being exogenous. I think you’re confusing them with constructivists, who are a different kettle of fish altogether.